Awareness & Attention
"Awareness is characterized by contact, by sensing, by excitement and by gestalt formation" (Perls et al, 1951, p viii);  "[It] is the spontaneous sensing of what arises in you of what you are doing, feeling, planning" (p 75).   In the example given in Contact: Good & Ill-health, I may have sensed the entrance of the person into my room but until I am aware, the excitement is missing and there is no gestalt.   When I do make good-quality, aware contact with the person, I feel excitement and that experience is a gestalt.  "Gestalt formation always accompanies awareness" (Perls et al, 1951, p ix). 

      Awareness is always of something that is present;   even if I am aware of remembering an experience I had years ago, I am remembering it now, in the present.   If I am not aware, I may lose myself in the memory, in the emotions it engendered then.   If I am aware I may not lose myself;   my awareness gives me a sense of distance from the memory and an opportunity to reframe it in line with what is emerging for me in my present internal and external circumstances.   In Gestalt therapy theory the awareness process is construed as an on-going contact with a continuum of experiences in "zones": 

  • awareness of body sensations (all immediately available to conscious awareness); 
  • awareness of sensory contact with aspects of the environment, of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling exudations from environmental stimuli (also immediately available); 
  • awareness of cognitions, thoughts, memories, daydreams, future plans (none of these is immediate);   and 
  • awareness of one's personal truth, one's personal beliefs and values as experienced in what Edward W. L. Smith has called "the inner voice which speaks the wisdom of the organism" (1992, p 100).  
      Early reactions to Gestalt therapy theory interpreted the theory as "anti-intellectual" usually associated with Perls' dictum loosely translated as "Get out of your head and into your senses."   The emphasis on the wholeness of the organism was lost, as was the fact that all awarenesses are mediated through the mind.   Actually the distinctions between cognitions and the cognitive process were not always made clear.   To speak of thoughts, memories, daydreams or plans is to focus on elements within a cognitive structure;   to construe the world on the basis of such structures may be stultifying.   However, if the individual is aware of the structures, the awareness itself is the organizing principle and thoughts are transformed into the process of thinking;   memories may become the process of remembering;   daydreams may become daydreaming;   or plans, planning.   Perls distinguished between a stultifying intellectualism and a lively intelligent awareness;   such a distinction seemed too subtle to persons who were not Gestalt oriented. 

      Awareness and attention are terms often used interchangeably;   however, in Gestalt therapy theory they are not synonymous.  "Attention is consciously effortful, but awareness is not" (Korb et al, p 8).   The use of the word attention signals a purposive focus, made intentional by choosing the cognitive direction of perception toward a particular target;   the target may be chosen from either a neurotic or health-oriented perspective.   Attention is based on awareness.   Awareness on the other hand does not involve the focused energy of attention.   A lively intelligent awareness (at whatever level of intelligence or whatever kind, conscious or not,) is an on-going aspect of being human, surviving in a not-always-supportive world.   At the survival level awareness is not necessarily conscious;   it can be sensory awareness based on sensory intelligence, sensory knowing.   At other times the person may be conscious but unaware, almost sleepwalking.   If I am walking through a wood on a lovely spring day I may be sleepwalking, conscious, but unaware of my self or my surroundings.   If all at once I hear a rustling in the brush beside the path I may react from my sensory awareness (being) and turn and run.   Sensory awareness may burst into consciousness in an intuitive experience;   the antecedent information from awareness has not been conscious.   When I stop running I may become consciously aware of what has happened. 

      In the example used earlier to illustrate contact, the entrance of the person has been recorded by my sensory but not conscious awareness (subliminal contact).   When the person moves into contactful space in which I can see or hear, my awareness becomes conscious.   If I make aware contact with the person entering my room and feel joyous, anxious or insecure I may choose to pay direct attention to that person in order to discover what stirred my feeling.   In that case the focus for my attention is forcibly directed;   I may learn that the person is a dear friend or that he/she is glowering at me and a further encounter is necessary. 

      In another context, using another set of verbal signals in Gestalt therapy, that which is the focus for my attention is noted as the "figure," that is, the material that emerges from the "ground," that is, the rest of my life experience. 

Copyright© The Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc.

| BACK | | HOME | | EMAIL |